Detroit: Iconic Buildings

The past that intertwines with the future, old buildings are revived for new companies. The community stands together for a better future for their children. Detroit is looking ahead.

Brainstorming wall


The architectural symbol of Detroit is The Renaissance Center (also known as the GM Renaissance Center and nicknamed the RenCen): a group of seven interconnected skyscrapers in downtown. Located on the International Riverfront, the Renaissance Center complex is owned by General Motors as its world headquarters. The Renaissance Center became the world’s largest private development with an anticipated 1971 cost of $500 million. “This building completed by Ford in 1976 represented the effort to bring back the city to what it once was,” says Paul Urbanek, design leader. “Another Iconic Building is the Guardian Building (1929). Behind those two, we have the Penobscot (1928), the Fisher (1928), and the Compuware buildings,” adds Urbanek.

2 The Veterans Memorial Building located on the original site of Fort Ponchartrain was designed by Gensler

Gensler office


SmithGroupJJR in 1999 moved to one of the most beautiful buildings in Detroit, the Guardian Building, also called in the past the “Cathedral of finance.” Guardian Building is located at 500 Griswold Street in the Financial District of downtown Detroit. It is a class-A office building owned by Wayne County, Michigan and serves as its headquarters. Built in 1928 and finished in 1929, the building was originally called the Union Trust Building and is a bold example of Art Deco architecture with examples of modern design. At the top of the Guardian Building’s spire is a large American Flag, complementing the four smaller flags atop nearby 150 West Jefferson. The building has undergone recent award-winning renovations. It was designated a National Historic Landmark on June 29, 1989, and the associated Detroit Financial District is on the National Register of Historic Places. On July 18, 2007, Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano announced that it had entered into an agreement with current owners to purchase the Guardian Building to relocate its offices from the Wayne County Building. The deal is reportedly part of a larger deal worth $33.5 million in real estate purchases in downtown Detroit.

Besides the Guardian Building, there are several examples of structures that mark the effort to return the city to its former glory. In Campus Martius, SmithGroupJJR renewed an existing building for Compuware World Headquarters. “It has been another kind of revival for the city, an effort to build a kind of entertainment district for the city, that worked wery well for few years until the economy went down,” says Urbanek. “Another example of efforts to revitalize the city is the recent Quicken Loans headquarters, which represents critical mass moving the city toward economic vitality,“ adds Urbanek. The Quicken Loans story is one of bold initiative leading to the rejuvenation of downtown Detroit. Their strategy was to find an empty building where they could move that would also bring growth. That strategy paid off for them. They purchased more than 20 buildings and brought 7000 people downtown to work in the city.


Bill Hartman, Managing Director, Gensler

Bill Hartman, Managing Director, Gensler

“One of the projects that resulted from that was the Madison building. It was intended to be an incubator where new business and new companies could come together,” states Bill Hartman, MD Gensler. Currently there are 32 companies located in the Building. “We worked with Q&L and the real estate team to find out how they could arrange the Mb in a way that would suit their purposes and from that sort of master plan they were able to hire architects and contractors to complete the project,” adds Hartman.


Moving young people to downtown central city from the suburbs is a very common and popular strategy today in Detroit. “What happens is that many of the creative businesses that originally supported larger automakers is looking for younger staff and clients and would like them to be in Detroit. The agency 720 is one of those examples.” “We worked with them to identify how to arrange the spaces and then we executed the design to create the character of the space. This space supports sustainable design in the best interest of the environment as well as supporting ing health and wellness through having healthy snacks, refreshements, and creating spaces where people can walk. “An important part of our philosophy in designing places for work is to recognize that there are different modes of how people work during the day. Some people require focus and concentration, others require collaboration, and others require the social aspect. So the spaces we designed had to support many different work styles.”

An example of this kind of project is the headquarter of the football team Detroit Lions. “It is a building that support the collaboration and training of a very young workforce all in the same environment, where managers and executives who run the team coexist, creating a family feel. That building has been designed to support all of these things simultaneously,” states Hartman.

In recent years there has been a relocation of spaces, from a private spaces to more collaborating and teaming ones. “What we notice in post-recession is that today’s workforce is the most diverse. Age and ethnicities differ greatly, whereas the space available continues to decrease. There is less space devoted to a person in the workplace and more space is dedicated to collaboration and learning,” adds Hartman.

A lawyer firm decided to move into a warehouse that was renewed in conjunction with the creation of the football stadium. “It was a space designed for industries. The new destination was intended for the professional practice of law. The challenge in a project like that was to find a vocabulary that reflected the heritage of the existing building,” says Hartman.

Thanks to the rapid decline in population since its heyday in the mid 20th Century, the City of Detroit is home to some 78,000 vacant structures. “Deconstruction can work. There is a sense of sustainability in using what is already built in the best way possible. A lot of buildings in Detroit have been deconstructed and renewed. It’s a peculiarity of the city that can’t be found in many other cities in the United States,” states Urbanek.
The process of deconstruction aims to dismantle a building piece by piece, leaving the building’s individual components in the best possible condition for reclamation. Though the process takes more time and requires more people, Reclaim Detroit, a non-profit organization, is able to keep a competitive cost of deconstruction by selling the salvaged materials. Another benefit to the person paying for the deconstruction is that the value of the salvaged materials is tax-deductible as it is classed as a donation.

Paul Urbanek, Design Leader, SmithGroupJJR

Paul Urbanek, design leader, SmithGroupJJR

Architect at work

Designing building as a job

Every city has its challenges and Detroit most certainly has urgent and long-standing ones. But not every city has the assets of Detroit. As Michigan’s largest urban center, Detroit is home to the largest concentration of workers, health, education, cultural, and entertainment institutions; the busiest international border crossing in North America for international trade; host to 50 million annual tourists and visitors; a city of beautiful historic neighborhoods and commercial areas, including 245 sites or districts on the National Register of Historic Places and 8 National Historic Landmarks; and the second largest theater district in the country, second only to New York City. These assets make up the city’s physical and economic capital.

Detroit Future city is a 350-page strategic framework aiming at promoting long term sustainability with information about new employment districts, the most promising residential neighborhoods, more efficient transportation modes, and innovative ideas to make use of acres of vacant land. “The report was developed through a 3 year process. There was a clear recognition at that time that the city was suffering financially and was unable to suggest valuable propositions to Detroit-based businesses and those who wanted to be there. The government needed to focus on several immediate challenges, so we elaborated long-term strategies to transform the city. In Januaury 2013, a team was formed to develop these strategies,” states Dan Kinkead, Executive Director, Detroit Future City. “Today the city is struggling in many ways, but there is also a new form of economy. In the last two years there were 12,000 new jobs downtown; the vacancy rates for offices spaces dropped dramatically; and the occupancy rate for residential living in the downtown area rose to 97 %. We need to be able to answer the question: “Why would someone want to be here” very clearly and very powerfully. In order to do this we need to address two issues. First, we have to focus on city revenue, and second on costs and the bankruptcy is part of that,” says Kinkead.

Dan Kinkead, Executive Director, Detroit Future City

Hamilton Anderson Associates is home to Detroit Future City’s Dan Kinkead

Detroit has, for more that 100 years, been known for making things. The industry supporting the automobile sector has become more technical. Today, it focuses more on the application of digital processes and components. The types of people who work in these industries have also changed. There is a much larger request for information technology profiles and brand and marketing profiles, so there is a renovation that is happening in downtown Detroit. “In my opinion the future of Detroit seems to be a contrast between the resurgence of downtown and the dereliction of neighborhoods. The attention of architects and urban designers needs to be applied in defining a strategy that enables the city’s neighborhoods to improve their quality of life,” concludes Hartman.

The things that Detroit is changing right now are: 1) mass transportation system through the M-1 Rail project; 2) downtown housing. The M-1 Rail project is a 3.3 mile circulating streetcar service on Woodward Avenue. It will better connect the 27,000 residents to their 140,000 job places and could bring between $500 million and $1 billion in economic development. It is a powerful project for a city in need of those kinds of numbers. “Those two things will change the dynamic of the city,” adds Urbanek.

Several projects are already underway. They involve various collaborations between local organizations.
“We are working with the Environmental Protection Agency for new green infrastructure systems on the east side, and we are also working with high schools on a new program to teach students about Detroit Future City. Moreover we are also collaborating with other institutes on a bike parking program,” concludes Kinkead. There are still several steps to take before seeing the city rise again, and it will still take a long time. Today’s projects are a gift, a legacy strongly supported by the community of Detroit, for the young people of tomorrow.

Photo story. The Modern City

The city before your eyes is lively, even if people are few. Sometimes its desolation can be overwhelming. But it has been able to become a community. This transformation has been possible because of everyone’s devotion and commitment. Now the city belongs to them—to everyone.


Published in the hard-copy of Work Style Magazine, Fall 2013